Friday, 4 October 2013

George Grosz: Berlin, prostitutes, politicians, profiteers

28 September – 2 November 2013

Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt (Diese Kriegsverletzten)From here.

Engrossing (pardon the pun).

“Did he go straight to the vice, not passing go?” asked a visitor while I was there. I was surprised: I hadn’t thought the images depicted vice at all, if by that we mean a criminal underworld.

Although every image is in some way sordid, surely this is supposed to be holding a mirror to the Weimar Republic, and more indirectly, to ourselves? I thought Richard Nagy must have intentionally framed one of the entrances with mirrors, so that we could see the grotesques were also us.

The first image I saw in this small but well-stocked exhibition is of a rich couple walking past a beggar, hand outstretched. You feel their dog is better fed and treated than he is.

Again, if the curators didn’t intend this striking image to be so prominent, then it is a happy chance. Their gallery is in the heart of Mayfair; the image's topicality should be obvious enough.

It's perhaps too easy to create stories, morality tales, out of these sickly images.

Here, a man with a knife follows a woman looking nervously back. There, a possible transvestite couple stand outside a bar, ignoring the stabbed corpse behind them.

Suggestively, a man in sailor suit follows the arse of another man, whose body is leaving the picture. Another image shows a prostitute unself-conscious in front of her sailor-suited young son.

Although presumably created in berlin, Grosz is determinedly international: the French tricolour reappears on a castle in several images, and activities take place outside a ‘café’ or a ‘bar’.

A skeletal avatar of war looks cold and in need of a hug, despite standing over a pile of corpses.

As if to reject claims that Grosz lacked technique, the exhibition depicts a variety of styles. Sometimes his watercolours look like they are imitating children’s paintings. Other times, he is deftly imitating the drawing style of the Old Masters. When he does the former, I suppose we’re to wonder about the effect of our horrific society on our children’s imaginations. When he does the latter, I suppose we’re to recognise the ancient tradition of prostitution and the commodification of women’s bodies.

The only oil painting on display is influenced by cubism, though it a clear retains a political subtext, with the name of the power company AEG prominent.

Cubism attempts to dislodge the Western post-Renaissance tradition of a single perspective, but I believe the early cubists weren’t overtly political. Grosz certainly is, and all of his works seem influenced by cubism, but all his additional perspectives show the same thing: rampant inequality.

Picasso’s Guernica, much later, is a more successful example of political cubism, for its many perspectives on brutality and carnage also convey a desperate desire for things to be otherwise, a humanising aspect missing from even the best of Grosz.

If this exhibition is representative, the artist’s devastating misanthropy is a hard limit on his achievement.

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